Nigel Hawkes: A nation of losers should play this game

Behind The Numbers
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The Independent Online

Is Britain rotten at sport? A poor performance by England at the World Cup has prompted some navel-gazing. And Wimbledon, Andy Murray apart, is always an excuse for plaintive articles about the state of British tennis.

Heavens, we invented these games. Why can't we play them?

Success in sport has been the subject of a lot of statistical analysis, some of it inconclusive. But what has emerged is that factors such as population, GDP, resources and participation levels account for about half a nation's success, with the other half due to training, motivation and individual talent.

Big nations win more Olympic medals than small ones; rich more than poor; and nations with lots of participants in any sport have a better chance of finding champions. A history of success predicts future success. Totalitarian regimes do better than expected; monarchies worse. What is surprising is how useful these simple criteria can be in predicting the medal count at the Olympic Games. Daniel Johnson and Ayfer Ali of Wellesley College in Massachusetts compared the outcome of the 1996 Atlanta games with predictions based on these variables. They anticipated 101 medals for the US; it won 119. The UK was predicted to win 21; it won 15. China was expected to get 51 medals; it won 50.

They found having the games at home increases a nation's chances by 12 per cent – equivalent to an extra 40 million citizens – good news for 2012. But it's no good having the people if they don't take part. Sport England's Active People Survey says it is pushing up participation. For 2007-08, it claims almost a million people had played tennis at least once in the previous four weeks, 2.3 per cent of the population.

Studies by Belgian sports scientists found a strong correlation in tennis between success and levels of participation, but other studies suggest the link is stronger when the sport is intensive and competitive – not true of those million occasional tennis players. Participation in sport in the UK is lower among the poor: when Britain does produce a Tim Henman or an Andy Murray, you can be sure he'll be a nicely-spoken middle-class boy.

But intensive coaching and focus bring results even when the base is narrow. The UK has only 126,100 rowers but enjoys huge success. Success also depends on the intensity of competition. Why do US teams nearly always win the baseball World Series? Because nobody else competes in it, bar Canada.

And a nation that competes in every sport can't excel at them all. Even the World Cup performance wasn't far below par. Fifa ranks England eighth, so a place in the last eight would have been par. England played several stinkers so missed out. That's sport.

Nigel Hawkes is Director of Straight Statistics (